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Consumers in 2022 are well aware of the importance of recycling. After all, they’ve been bombarded with “recyclable” messages on their products since the 1970s. But even the most optimistic are frustrated by the lack of progress and a recycling process available. The urgency of these efforts increases as climate change increasingly affects our daily lives.
It is estimated that the 11 million tons of plastic currently entering the ocean each year will triple in the next 20 years if action is not taken quickly. Now is the time – businesses must take immediate steps to understand the realities of recycling, opportunities to contribute to a circular economy and the need to educate consumers.
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Recycling requires a restart
The data clearly shows consumer confusion about recyclability. There is a staggering gap between the idea of recycling and reality.
Of the 40 million tons of plastic waste generated in the U.S. last year, only 5 to 6 percent was recycled, a new report found. In fact, glass, plastic and liquid cartons all have much lower recycling rates than consumers think.
The reality is that most materials labeled “recyclable” are either not recycled, or are recycled only once or twice before going to landfill. So while labelling these materials may seem like an easy way to promote recycling, it does little to protect our planet.
The good news is that consumers still want to be part of the long-term solution. According to Trivium Packaging’s 2022 Global Green Purchasing Report, more than half of consumers are “unlikely” to buy products with harmful packaging, and 44% of consumers say they “would not buy” products with environmentally harmful packaging.
But just because consumers like to buy sustainable packaging doesn’t mean they’re taking the necessary steps to recycle it. That’s why brands must do their part to encourage more recycling, including educating consumers about the huge gap between perception and reality. Every business must change consumer behavior by creating recycling content across brand channels, communicating about sustainable materials, and finding ways to encourage and incentivize recycling of their products and packaging.
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Now is the time for leaders to dig deeper and investigate materials that can be permanently recycled without loss of quality and at high recycling rates. These materials, such as metal and glass, remain in the circular loop forever, achieving a higher level of circularity.
For example, 84% of steel packaging in Europe is recycled. Once sourced, metal packaging is infinitely refillable and versatile, ultimately making it more economical and environmentally friendly due to its durability.
Reducing waste and moving away from throwaway culture is one of the most important shifts in modern consumerism. Brands must join. By switching from materials that can be recycled a limited number of times to those that can be recycled permanently, companies large and small can not only advance their own sustainability goals, but also contribute to the circular economy and help save our planet.
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Infrastructure Investments: Public and Private Responsibilities in the Circular Lifecycle
If businesses feel that government policy supports improving their environmental footprint, they will be more confident in changing their manufacturing processes to support infinitely recyclable materials. Instead, there is a lot each brand can do to support a stronger recycling infrastructure.
In recent years, large consumer brands have banded together to make major recycling infrastructure investments. Companies also work directly with processing centers to invest in enhanced recycling machinery, or work with recycling centers to promote new technologies to more accurately and efficiently sort recycled materials.
No matter the size of the company, there are ways to get involved. There are many examples in the world of businesses, government entities and communities working together to keep waste out. Many companies offer collection programs, even targeting difficult-to-recycle waste streams, and work with businesses to strengthen their circular supply chains, ultimately keeping materials in the loop.
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Implementation and Education
In a recent study, 88% of consumers said they want brands to help them be more sustainable and ethical in their everyday lives. There is no better platform to convey important information to your consumers than the packaging itself.
Using on-pack language such as “Metal is always recycled” and “100% recyclable, forever” in packaging or point-of-sale materials on digital platforms and social channels will help promote environmental credentials and convey a call to action for end users .
Recycling is far from the simple panacea that the ads of the past 30 years have led us to believe. It’s complicated and requires work. It’s time to tackle this complexity and take recycling to a new level – circularity. This requires examining existing SDGs. Small businesses that understand how to take advantage of this new circular infrastructure will win — and help save the planet in the process.